PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Sue Elvis. Hi, Sue!
SUE: Hi Pam! It’s really exciting to meet you.
PAM: Is it? That’s lovely. I was very excited that you agreed to come on!
If people don’t know Sue, Sue hosts the podcast Stories of an Unschooling Family, as well as a website and blog. And I really enjoyed listening to and reading about snippets of their unschooling lives, and, as I said, I’m very excited that she agreed to come on and chat with me.
So, to get us started Sue …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
SUE: Yes, Pam. We live in Australia. We are about one and half hours south of Sydney. We live in a village surrounded by the beautiful Australian bush, which, if anybody looks at my photos, that’s obvious. All my photos are set in the bush, as my favorite place.
I’m married to Andy. He’s a primary schoolteacher, which is a great conversation starter for unschoolers. And we have eight children. We have five girls, and three boys. That’s seven living children, and we have a baby Thomas who died, well, I think it’s been 19 years ago. His anniversary is just coming up. And our eldest child is 31, which is rather frightening. And the youngest is 14. So I’ve got two children under the age of 18. But, we’re all unschoolers.
PAM: That’s awesome.
SUE: So, that’s the facts, I guess.
PAM: It keeps you busy, right?
SUE: Ah, busy. Life isn’t as busy as it used to be as far as my kids go, because I found that as they get older, they turn around and they help out with me, and I’ve got lots of free time these days. But I am busy, but just doing other things. So you know, all the unschooling stuff. Like, I’m still busy learning things myself, and I do a lot of things online, and I’ve got a lot of contacts and things I’m interested in. But as far as having to do homeschooling, because we’re registered homeschoolers as well as unschoolers, life is a lot easier these days. Because I only have two reports for one child, and that makes it much, much easier.
PAM: Mmm-hmm. And you know, it’s interesting—when I make a comment, “that sounds busy,” that’s a pretty typical comment to make. But it’s not about the busy-ness. As you said, it’s kind of like the flow, isn’t it? That comes and goes with life. Like, when we have moments, we’re learning ourselves. We’re always choosing what we’re filling our time with, right?
SUE: Well, yeah. I think that we’re the type of people that we have so many things that we want to do. So being busy isn’t bad. But being busy—we haven’t got enough time. The world is an exciting place and there’s lots to do, and that’s a lovely sort of busy-ness.
How did you discover unschooling, and what did your family’s move to unschooling look like?
SUE: Well, I think maybe our discovery of unschooling was atypical. I knew that we could homeschool, because my mother homeschooled my youngest brother. He’s quite a bit younger than me. I’m the oldest. So I knew all about homeschooling. And so that when our first child got to the age of about five, we wanted to homeschool. We knew that. And that didn’t mean that we weren’t sort of scared about it, because we didn’t know anybody else, apart from my mother, who was homeschooling.
And when we did get into contact with other homeschoolers, we sort of stepped into the unschooling environment. Everybody around us—well, there weren’t that many people, this was 26 years ago—there weren’t that many people homeschooling. But the people that we did find were unschoolers. People that were prepared to step outside of the normal. They weren’t interested in the system, the education system. I think unschooling does attract a lot of people who are brave enough to go their own way. And we just happened to meet up with these people. I went to a couple of conferences, and everybody was so enthusiastic, excited about the love of learning, and how kids don’t need to be forced to learn. All that sort of thing. And I got very, very inspired.
And I also got John Holt’s magazine, called Growing Without Schooling, I think. It was still being delivered to letterboxes at that time. We’d get it in the mailbox once a month or whenever it was. And that was an inspiration as well.
So, we did start off as unschoolers, but the problem was, we didn’t really understand unschooling. I thought it was just, ‘we step back and just let our kids get on with it.’ They were all wired to learn, so I didn’t have to do anything. But not only did I not have to do anything, I couldn’t do anything, because I’d interfere with the natural process of learning.
And after a while, I found my kids weren’t doing all the wonderful things I’d been told they would do. I’d gone to a conference and they told me about all these stories about kids who rewired houses, or they drew frog after frog after frog, and they asked to go to all these concerts. Well, my kids weren’t doing anything. And I couldn’t understand why. And one day I decided that unless I introduced a few things to my children, things that I thought they might be interested in, and some of my passions like Shakespeare and poetry, I wondered whether they would actually ever find out about them. Would they really stumble across them by themselves? And before we knew it, we’d left unschooling because yes, I didn’t understand, and I was attracted also by other ideas.
I had a friend who—oh, she had three marvelous boys—they did everything. They were pianists and ballet dancers, and they performed in the theatre. And they were clever. And she did sort of like unit study approach, though I don’t think she called it that. But she did a lot of structured stuff with them. And I guess that we get tempted to follow somebody else’s pathway sometimes. I just looked at her kids and I thought, “I want that for mine.” And we left unschooling behind for quite some time while we went exploring other avenues. Looking for the perfect way to homeschool.
PAM: That’s really, really interesting. And such a great point, too. Looking back now, you’ve come to realize what it was that was missing, and we’re going to get into that a little bit later as well, in the conversation. But, it’s such a great point that when you’re learning and figuring this stuff out, and you’re connecting with people and you’re seeing what they’re doing and seeing their kids in action, it’s all learning for ourselves, isn’t it? And learning for our children, in that we’re figuring out ways to engage with the world and explore the things that we’re interested in, eh?
I think also that homeschooling from a parent’s point of view is a whole new area, and it is exciting looking at the educational philosophies. And almost sometimes we get caught up in discovering things for ourselves, not necessarily for our children, so that we forget to look at our children. We read all the books about Charlotte Mason or Classical, and it’s all very, very exciting. And we want to try things out, and what will work. And it was a very exciting time in some ways, but also very difficult as far as trying to fit my kids into all these different methods, if you understand that.
PAM: That’s such a great point, Sue. That when we’re doing all this research and reading about them all, we’re looking at them through our lens, right? And seeing how we imagine our family fitting into it. And then we get this lovely picture in our head of what we think it’s going to look like if we do it this way, or we do it this way, or we do it this way. And then, like you said, then you’re kind of picking one and trying to get your kids to fit into it, right?
SUE: That’s right. And it all does sound good, you know, in the books.
SUE: We were mainly books, because we didn’t have the internet in those days. Which was probably good, because it is good to connect with other people, but I think I would have had even more information to plow through. And my poor children—they were experiments. We would dip into one thing, to another, and back again. Yes, they were happy for a certain length of time, and I was happy because we started off, and a new method was exciting. But it didn’t take long for things to fall apart again.
Nothing was the answer, because I think that I was—well, I was, definitely—forgetting to listen to my own children. Listening to everybody else. And trying to fulfill other people’s expectations without looking at my children, seeing what their needs were, trying to make them conform to other people’s ideas of what they should be doing.
PAM: So, what was it that brought you back to unschooling?
SUE: Getting fed up of going around and around the circle, I think.
Our family life was falling apart because when children aren’t happy, when I wasn’t happy, the children weren’t happy, I was making them do things, and they would say to me, “But mum, why do we have to do this?” And in the end I stopped and I thought, “Well, why do they have to do it? It doesn’t really make much sense.” And I guess that was the point where I started thinking that there must be something better. Not another method, but listening to my kids and working it out for ourselves. But I wanted something that—well, we had to do something that didn’t cause battles between us, because our relationships were just disintegrating. Also, I had babies and toddlers and all of the children, and I couldn’t fit them all into my life.
And I used to be called The Dragon Mother. Because, I used to get so overwhelmed I’d boil up inside and my kids could see that I was going to explode, and I’d rush outside and sit out there and think about things, and my poor kids. I’d just look up at them through the window, they’d be looking at me. And I was thinking, “There must be something better than this. I’m not the mother I want to be for my kids. But I do love them so very much. This is not the way life should be.” And that’s when we stopped trying—well, I stopped trying to conform my children to somebody else’s ideas. And we didn’t actually look for another method. I just sort of stopped doing the things that were causing us all the problems. They sort of fell away, one by one, until we were happy, that the things were working for us.
SUE: I didn’t know we were unschooling. That was the next step down the track.
PAM: I was just going to say I love that you were taking things away that weren’t working, right? Just like, “Okay, that’s not working, that’s not working,” until you ended up in a place you were comfortable with. And then it was later on that you were like, “Hey, this meshes with unschooling.”
SUE: That’s right. Because my kids were very interested in learning. They had lots of interests. That wasn’t the problem. It was pushing those out to do the things that we thought we had to do—well, I thought my kids had to do. And so yes, we just stopped doing all those things, and then people used to say to me, “Oh Sue, what method of homeschooling are you using with your kids?” I was very vague. I just used to say, “Oh, we do our own thing. We follow our interests, we read lots of books, we go on outings.” And then I changed the subject. Because I didn’t really know what we were doing. [laughter]
And it wasn’t until, oh, maybe, I don’t know, eight or nine years ago, I was reading Suzie Andres’s homeschooling books—what are they called—Homeschooling with Gentleness and A Little Way of Homeschooling. And I suddenly realized that what we were doing did have a name. Other people were doing it. We were unschooling.
And from that experience, it makes me feel that unschooling isn’t sort of something that you read a book about and then put the steps into action like you would Charlotte Mason. It’s very, very natural. That this is the way our kids are supposed to be learning. We can get there by ourselves, if only we listen to our kids. It’s not something that we’re imposing on them. They’re just naturally wired to learn, and if we listen and respond and help them, we will get to unschooling that way.
PAM: I love that. Because yeah, to me that is the essence of unschooling, right? When you’re connecting with your children, that’s the way that humans are wired to learn. It’s the same with—I later on heard the phrase “attachment parenting” and read a bit about it, but it was pretty much the way I was connecting with my children, the way I just felt worked best for our relationship, you know what I mean?
Unschooling really is about supporting human beings how they learn. Because our children learn, you know, they don’t have as many connections or experience with the world as we do, but we still learn in the same ways, don’t we? We still follow our interests, we still are curious, we are still just engaging with the world and seeing what happens. Right?
SUE: Yes, and as you just said about attachment parenting, I think that really it is, if we didn’t think about school, if we just continued what we were doing, then we would get there anyway. I am the same as you—when my kids were little, I just did what I felt was the right thing to do with my kids. I just carried them around, fed them, despite everybody saying you shouldn’t do that. But it was the thing I felt they needed. And I remember those days when I used to walk around and show my kids things, and take them swimming, and put them under a tree in the shade, and give them words of things, and just introduce them to the world, and that’s how they learned. And that’s what unschooling is, really, isn’t it? That we just keep on doing that, just keep on surrounding them with the world and helping them discover things and things they’re interested in, things they need to know, that type of thing.
PAM: Yup. Exactly. (laughs) Yeah—
SUE: It’s not a big mystery, really, is it?
PAM: No, no. (laughs) Well I mean, and that’s great. Because it feels natural, maybe that’s why people feel like we’re not doing anything, you know what I mean?
SUE: Oh –
PAM: And they feel that we need to be doing something. Because I remember, as I said, I felt I was kind of naturally attachment parenting. And this was before I even knew homeschooling existed. And I still distinctly remember having a conversation with my sister-in-law, when my youngest had just basically reached school age, and she was a special needs teacher at school. And she was commenting on how we’re always taking the kids places and we’re doing things with them, and how that was going to put them so far ahead. And I remember being just so taken aback—like, isn’t that just what people naturally do with their kids? Live their lives together and have fun and show them things and talk with them and do all those things that seem just so natural to me.
SUE: Yes, I agree. But, talking about doing nothing—it just reminds me of when I was going around and around that circle of trying all the different homeschooling methods. I did consider unschooling, and I thought no. Well, I thought yes, that might be the answer because I won’t have to do anything. It will be so easy, I’ll just sit back—I could step outside the circle, just let my kids get on with it—it might be the answer. And then I thought, ‘No, I can’t do that. Because isn’t that lazy? People will say, “Hey you’re just too lazy to write a curriculum for your kids. And you can’t just let your kids get on with it.”’
And I had the wrong idea about unschooling, because I was still influenced by my early experiences of unschooling, even though our kids do get on and learn, and they don’t need us to write the curriculum or anything for them. It isn’t lazy. And we’re all involved a lot more with our kids than people might think. But that initial, when I was considering it, thinking, ‘No, this is a lazy way of doing things.’ And I think that’s a problem when people think about unschooling. I do have negative imagery of it, like, “No, unschooling parents, they’re just too lazy or organize their kids’ education. They’re irresponsible.”
Do you hear that sometimes?
PAM: Oh yeah. No, exactly. And you know what? That leads so nicely into one of our next questions, which is …
The difference between unschooling and unparenting. Because you recently wrote a blog post on the topic, and I recently found myself in a conversation where that misconception between those two things soon became obvious. You know, that they thought they were the same thing as well. So how do you explain the difference?
SUE: Well … (pauses) … let me think about this one. [laughter]
I think that when—well perhaps unparenting is when parents step back and they let their kids do whatever they like, even if that isn’t good for them. They say that, “My children can do whatever they like, I’m not going to influence my child.” But that may end up—the situation might be that the child ends up doing things that aren’t good for their health, aren’t good for their development, whatever. They’re not learning the skills that they need to get on in the world.
But, unschooling parents know that kids have to be free to make their own choices. You can’t say things like, “You have to do this or you have to do that.” But letting kids make their own choices isn’t enough. That we want our kids to use their freedom to do what is right. Not necessarily what they like. And the choices that the child makes should be beneficial to the child, if you understand. I’m probably not explaining that well.
But people say, “Well how do you get kids to do what is right?” And then I think that is all to do with our connections, that we have to connect with our kids, so that they respect us, they trust us, they know that we love them, and we become the most important people to them, so that they listen to us. And when we’ve got those connections, then we can share what we think is right and wrong, and what we would like for our children, and they do listen to us. So they have the choice, but they’re going to make choices—we hope, because kids do make mistakes, and so do we all—but on the whole, kids will make the right choices for themselves. And that might be, sometimes, making the right choice which benefits somebody else rather than themselves. But yeah, I probably haven’t explained that very well.
PAM: Yeah, it makes sense to me.
When you say the right choices—totally—it’s the right choices for them in the moment. But as you say, we are there with that connection. So, we’re involved in their conversation as they’re analyzing, as they’re picking, as they’re choosing. We’re there when they make a choice, to chat with them about what happened from that. So that they’re gaining and processing real experience from that.
And you know, to me the unparenting thing tied in with the lazy aspect, lazy parenting, when people think of unschooling as, like you had said before, you thought, “Oh I could just sit back and let them do their own thing. If I choose this way I’m going to leave it all up to them, and then off they go, and not interfere.”
I remember right back in the beginning that was something that stood out for me, when you said that, “I shouldn’t be interfering with them.” Connecting with them, and talking with them is not interfering, right? That’s engaging with them, that’s having a relationship with them, versus, you know, leaving them on their own, to figure everything out. That’s not fair to them either.
I like that word: engaging. I think that maybe some people think that unschoolers can’t give their opinion to their children, but of course, we listen to their opinions as well. But that whole thing of being able to talk—we talk all the time about everything. And to have those conversations where, we’re not lecturing, and we’re not telling our kids this, that, or the other, but we’re just swapping ideas, listening to each other, and learning from each other. Because sometimes I learn from my kids. Especially now they’re teenagers. They’ve been thinking a long time. They know a lot about unschooling and learning and life, and sometimes I am very surprised about what they come out with. And sometimes we think we know better, because we’re the adult—but they’re the person that’s learning. They’re the person that knows what’s important to them. They know how they learn best, and I think sometimes we forget to actually go and listen to our kids and discover some answers from them, rather than from other people, or ourselves, or the internet, or whatever. We forget to stop and listen to our own children.
PAM: Oh, I know. And it’s amazing what you learn from them, right? The insights, the things that they put together, the connections they make, the observations they make—it’s spectacularly fun to chat with them, isn’t it?
SUE: Oh, very much. It’s such a privilege. Sometimes when I’m writing I will stop and I will say to my kids, “Hey, I’m writing about this, what do you think?” And they come out instantly with something that I can use, something I think, “Wow, that’s a wonderful insight.” Yes, they’re really cluey. They think about things. I think in some ways our kids know more about things than we do. We’re still—I don’t know about you Pam, but I’m—not really these days—but, a lot of us are held back by our upbringings, our ideas that we’ve accumulated along the way. But our unschooling children aren’t held back by those things.
PAM: Absolutely. And that’s part of our choices, too, to have a different kind of relationship with them. We’re not piling on all those different kinds of expectations and judgments on them.
Because that’s the other thing I was going to mention, when we talk about engaging with them and having conversations with them, and, like you said before, having real conversations where we can share our opinions. The difference is—that I think when people first hear about unschooling, that is so confusing for them, is—you’re talking to your kids and then your kids are deciding what they’re going to do, because our conversations aren’t loaded with those judgments and expectations. Like, “Okay, we’re having a conversation, but you can hear from the tone of my voice what choice I want you to make.”
No, we’re actually having that conversation, helping them explore what they think and what they see and what their choices are. And we’re doing that in support of them, instead of trying to subtly control them. Does that difference make sense?
SUE: Yes it does. I think we are very good as humans, as parents, by not saying a lot, so that people can’t point a finger at us and say, “Well, you said this or you said that,” and you’ll say, “Well I didn’t say that,” but we can give subtle messages by our body language or our tone of voice or whatever. Our kids know when they can trust us and—the trust. Yes, they need to be able to trust us as well as we need to be able to trust them. They know when we have some sort of—when we’re not really listening—
SUE: Yes, that’s right. That’s the word. I quite often forget the words I want to use. I think it’s as getting older.
PAM: (laughs) I know that feeling.
SUE: If I’m writing a blog post, I do a bit of googling, I think, I’ve got this sort of word, I do a bit of googling to get the synonyms, the thesaurus –
PAM: I live in my thesaurus! Because I want to get just the right word, right? I know what sort of the right word is, but there I go to get the one that has just the right tone of what I’m trying to communicate. Because words are important, body language is important, tone is important. All of those ways of communicating as clearly as you can, are important, aren’t they?
SUE: They are. And you came to my help then, with the word ‘agenda,’ because that’s the perfect word. Yes, we have our own agendas. But we don’t always admit it. Yeah, so, conversations with kids, aren’t they so wonderful?
PAM: They are. They’re amazing. And yeah, I’m—(sighs)—for years, like from when they were young teens, when situations would come up, like situations when I wasn’t sure what the next choice or move might be, I would go and seek their feedback. Have a conversation with them.
Not particularly to say, “What would you do?” or whatever. Because they’re not me. But it’s to get their feedback to see how they see it, because, as you said, they don’t have a lot of the filters that we have ingrained in us from our upbringing.
That is a huge part of deschooling: working through those, even just to be able to recognize when different things from our past are influencing the way we’re seeing things now. Like so often, if I was out with my kids and I saw something happen with them, I would feel more defensive or something than they would, because I would have all my history behind me. But they were just in the moment. And they saw it so much more clearly than I did.
SUE: I think that’s really wonderful. Usually the parent-child relationship is very much one-way. But I have found that my kids are helping me learn, and they’re giving me suggestions, looking at the world through my eyes, trying to help me with my situation just as much as I’m doing it for them. It’s, say, a family thing. So that I often talk to them about things that are bothering me, and they always have something interesting to say. And that’s a wonderful relationship to have, isn’t it?
PAM: Oh, it’s a beautiful relationship to have. And, you’ve got a wide range of ages, your children, and the relationship doesn’t change when they hit age 18, does it? It’s just like, as we were talking about before, moving to unschooling is really just living the way we were living with young kids. This is the same right up through into adulthood.
You mentioned trust before. Trust is a huge thing with me. And that’s what you’re developing with them when you’re not bringing that overlay of judgment and expectation. You develop that trust that you’re there to happily help each other out. Right?
SUE: Yes, I think that going back to when I was swapping between homeschooling methods—I had no trust. My children could not trust me. There was no trust there whatsoever. And I think, when I talk to people who are beginning unschooling, that the need to build up that trust—not only so that we always talk about trusting our children, but they have to be able to trust us as well. And that’s a big thing. That they deserve our trust, and sometimes they can’t trust us. It takes time.
PAM: Yeah. It’s developing real trust, not, “You have to trust me because I’m your parent,” or, “You should trust me because I’m your parent.” To show that you are trustworthy by the way you are in relationship with them.
We talk so much about how we find it hard to trust our kids, but we don’t talk so much the other way around, that whether we are trustworthy.
PAM: Yeah. And that’s such an important piece.
I wanted to just—you went there just now, talking about how you ended up moving through the different kinds of homeschooling methods, as you were trying to see what worked best for you guys. So I suspect that was one of the most challenging aspects of finally getting yourself to unschooling.
I just wanted to touch base and see if there was another challenging aspect that you wanted to share?
SUE: Actually, getting to unschooling, even though we didn’t know that that’s where we were headed, wasn’t so much challenging for us because it was like we were tossing off things, and it was getting better and better. We felt we were moving in the right direction.
But the challenging thing was being alone doing it. That we didn’t have any support groups. The unschoolers that I talked about 26 years ago, that we met at those conferences—they’re no longer part of our lives. We live in a fairly isolated community. We’ve moved quite a lot. But the only homeschoolers around here are structured homeschoolers. And before we got the internet, and I sort of started blogging about unschooling, very few people we could talk to. Especially when we started along that pathway to unschooling, which was quite some time ago, and we didn’t have the internet. Even though we felt happy, it was almost like we kept it to ourselves, and you couldn’t talk about it to anybody else. There were no support groups.
And that’s the hardest aspect I found, because there were days where I questioned what we were doing, even though it felt good. I thought, “Shouldn’t homeschooling be harder than this? Why are all my friends always talking about how they can’t get their kids to do this, or do that, and I don’t have those problems? I just stand back from the conversation. I keep quiet. I don’t want to get involved because, I mean, what do I say?” “With our way, don’t bother doing that.”? But then they’ll probably turn around and say, “Well you’re really not doing it properly. If you were doing your parental duty properly, you would be doing this, that, and the other. That’s your duty as a homeschooling parent.”
And so sometimes I did question that I was doing enough. That maybe homeschooling should be a little more difficult than it was. Maybe our lives shouldn’t be as happy as they were. Which I think, looking back, is pretty ridiculous. I think that that’s what we should be doing—building up a happy family life with our kids. And life shouldn’t be a struggle. But because we were the only people within a community of other people who were struggling, that was difficult. Yeah.
PAM: That makes a lot of sense, yeah. It takes a while to get to that place to understand the value of that happiness and why it doesn’t look so hard. And I love that—I remember those first couple of years when we began unschooling and I would end up in groups of friends, etc, and not really mentioning what we were doing. Because I felt I would really need to defend it and, like you said, you were on your own, and didn’t have enough in-depth understanding of it. Like it was going well, and it made sense—oh! Experience. That’s it. Understood it, but without enough experience to really, you know, own that truth. Does that make sense?
SUE: Yes, yeah. And also, to toss off those ideas that still threatened to overwhelm us again. It does take a long time to get clear of our old ideas, even though we know they’re wrong. They do have that habit of echoing in our mind sometimes. And when people tell you that it’s your duty to do this, that, or the other—I did stop and question it a few times, but I couldn’t go backwards because I couldn’t go back to the situation we were in.
But yeah, people do say things like, “You’re jeopardizing your kids’ futures,” and, “It doesn’t matter if you ruin your relationship because your kids will thank you later on when they’re well-educated and they’re all set up for life.” And I think, “Well that’s rather silly, isn’t it?” Because they’re going to look back on an unhappy childhood and you won’t have any relationship, or maybe your relationship will be alright, but it won’t be as good as it could’ve been. And are kids really going to thank us? And what will we give them? Top marks in an exam or something? It really just doesn’t add up. And it took a long time to realize that the goal of education and the goal of parenting wasn’t what people had told me it should be. We have totally different ideas about the end product these days.
SUE: We’re not working towards a higher level, high marks on exams. I mean, kids might want to go to university, and all mine who have wanted to have gone. That’s something unschoolers can do. But that’s not what we’re living our lives for.
PAM: Oh, yeah. That’s such a great point. Such a great point. And for the first while we can be affected by those messages, because they’re what we’ve heard all our lives. It takes a while to peel back those layers and really get comfortable with a whole new paradigm—a whole bunch of new paradigms, really—all around parenting and learning.
In a recent episode of your podcast, which is called Stories of an Unschooling Family—and I will have links in the show notes so that people can find it—you and your daughter Sophie chatted about another unschooling misconception. And we’ve touched on this a little bit; the idea that unschooling means drifting kind of aimlessly through your days. That you don’t have a plan, that you should really just be open and do whatever you come across. So, in contrast to that, what has been your family’s experience?
SUE: Well it took a while to get past that aimlessly drifting through your days misconception, because you hear so many stories on the internet about unschoolers who just stay up late, get up the next morning, drift through their days. I mean I don’t think there’s anything wrote with staying up late. Some people are night owls.
SUE: That’s not the problem. But you hear so many negative stories about people who don’t really have any goals in their day. They just go from one thing to another. And so for a long time we thought, “Well perhaps we’re not unschooling properly, because we’ve got so many things we want to do, and not enough hours.”
And I was talking to Sophie several weeks ago about this, and we were talking about how because I didn’t fill up her days with lots of things that I wanted her to do, she had plenty of time to explore her own interests, her own passions, discover things that she liked doing, things she was good at, all her talents.
And then, because I didn’t also give her things, goals, that she had to achieve, she took on her own challenges. She found out things that she liked, doing things she was good at, she set herself challenges. And in doing that, she learned that there were things she wanted to do in her day, and how was she going to arrange her days so she could do as much as possible.
And I find the same thing, that I’ve just got so many interests, so many things that I want to achieve, and I’m not really very good at organizing—not as good as my children—go from one to another.
But we only have so many hours a day, don’t we? And if we just drift—and of course, some days, we do drift. I mean, some days we need a rest, we need to sit around the table and talk. It’s not go, go, go. But within my family we’ve all got so many ideas, so many things we want to do, that we get up in the morning and the first thing we say is, “What are we going to do today?” “What are you working on?” And then we all go our own ways and start working, or we might work together. But yes, we’re certainly not drifting.
And we’ve talked about how, if we do drift, we waste time, but I mean wasting time’s sometimes good. Because I’ve also talked about how we don’t have to be busy every single moment of the day. “Wasting time”—inverted commas—is something we all should do more of. But we also have to—if we want to achieve anything—we have to look at it and say, “Well I’ve got to work on this a bit today,” or, “How am I going to get where I want to go.” That type of thing.
So, we’re always talking about those sort of things. “How are you getting on with this? How are you getting on with that? What are you going to do today?” And that’s exciting in itself. Watching each other’s goals get accomplished, helping each other achieve things, working on things together. It’s just very, very exciting I think. And they’re all things that we want to do, things that we feel that we have the talents or the interests in, which is totally different to being busy doing schooling or homeschooling, things other people tell you that you have to do.
PAM: Oh, exactly. I love that. Because I really enjoy the conversation around drifting aimlessly. The point that you made at the beginning there, where you kind of felt, “Are we really unschooling because we’re doing this and we want to do this and we want to accomplish this, and we’re organizing things to accomplish our goals, etc.”
The misconception that unschoolers—I think it goes back to not telling them what to do, and the conventional assumption that if you don’t tell people what they should be doing, children or adults, they don’t do anything. That’s, I think, what might give people the impression that they’re just drifting through their days, because they don’t have goals.
But just because goals aren’t imposed on a person, they have their own goals, as you said. Everybody’s got the things that they want to do, whether it’s a whole bunch of things, or whether it’s a real deep dive into one particular thing. People wake up and want to do things.
And absolutely, those quiet days—and, in fact, my kids wanted those quiet days more than I thought they would when we first began unschooling. Because there is so much value in those conversations that come up, in those moments where you’re just swinging on the swing, or just lying down reading, or walking in the forest. Whatever it is that you’re doing that allows your subconscious to process things and to make really cool connections. That’s how they come up with all these cool things they’re bringing up in our conversations!
SUE: They do, and the thing you were saying there about processing, we need quiet time for processing. I think that’s another problem sometimes with unschoolers. That when kids are busy, busy, busy, involved with their projects, when we can see them doing something and it’s very, very exciting, and then all of a sudden they might drift into a quiet time, and nothing really sparks for a while. And parents get worried and think, “Oh look, my child’s not interested in anything anymore, what happened? They’re not learning, they’re not learning!”
And how much, after a while, we all do it. We rise again. We get excited again, and we’re off again. And those in-between troughs are just a natural part of learning. But because we’re conditioned by the school system that you have to go to school every day and work hard between these hours, and there’s never that time to go down and come back up again. You have to perform every single day of the school year. But it doesn’t really happen in real life that way.
PAM: Absolutely. I love that. And I think that’s something that’s so awesome for the kids to experience and learn, through their childhood and their teen years. Because even they can get to a point where they’re like, “Hmm, nothing’s really catching my interest anymore. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next.” But when they’ve gone through those ups and downs, those troughs as you were talking about, I think they can more relax into them when they’ve had enough experience, enough times that they come out the other side.
Like, you know, for me now, when I get to that point, I’m mostly curious. It’s like, “Hmm, I wonder what is eventually going to catch my attention,” or, “How is this eventually going to work out?” Because they’ve been given the space to have those experiences without somebody breathing down their neck that, “You have to go choose something, do something, here, you’re not doing anything, let’s go out, let’s do this.” Trying to keep them occupied, and not really valuing those quiet moments, right?
SUE: That’s right. Maybe just trusting that learning is happening anyway, and it just doesn’t look the same every single day, week, month of the year, does it?
PAM: Yeah! You’re right. And when you look at it from the school perspective too, I think one of the reasons that as parents, from growing up, we feel it’s a whole productivity thing, right? That we should be producing something with our time or it’s a waste of our time, or that time isn’t valued if—you know that phrase—“If you don’t have something to show for it.” Right? (chuckles)
SUE: Yes, and that’s a very big problem I think for registered homeschoolers, to actually have things to show, and that’s a big step when we unschool, because we don’t always have those things, and there’s a letting go of that.
PAM: Mm-hmm. No, I love that.
One of the really interesting things for me about unschooling is how it soon grew into a way of life for the whole family. I was recognizing my learning, I was recognizing my rise and fall, my high energy times, low energy times. It became intricately woven into every aspect of all our lives, unschooling did. So I was hoping you had a story to share about how you have seen that unschooling mindset weave into your adult lives? Maybe you or your husband?
SUE: Yes, I’ll tell you the story of my husband Andy. We got married straight out of uni. We actually got married on the very last day of our university degree classes, and I guess this put a bit of pressure on my husband—he had to find a job quickly. And he got a safe and secure job—well, the first job he could get—went into a safe and secure career in business and was in that job for 25 years before he was made redundant one day. And he came home, and he just looked so lost. And I was just so sad about the whole thing. How people can just throw people away, when they have given their all to something. And he did give his all to his job, even though he didn’t particularly like it, but he’s the sort of person who, that that’s not an excuse. He would just do his best.
And that was a turning point for him, because he came home, and he was looking for a new job as quick as he could, because we had seven children—I’m not sure, we had maybe six children at home then. And I said to him, “Look, Andy, this is your turn. Why don’t you follow your dreams, go back to uni, and do what you really wanted to do right at the beginning? Why don’t you go and do your masters of teaching and become a schoolteacher?” Which might sound really strange for an unschooler, to become a schoolteacher. But I do think—I’ve worked my way through this one—even though we would never send our children to school, schoolteachers are necessary because not everybody is going to do what we are doing, and there are so many children out there who are in need of a good, caring teacher. And that’s the sort of person my husband is. He is interested and cares about kids.
And at first he just said, “Oh I couldn’t do that Sue, we’ve got the family.” So we all had a family meeting and I said, “Well, what do you think about dad going back to uni? We’d have to live really frugally for a long time, but I think it’s his turn to follow his dreams.” And all the kids said, “Yes Dad! You’ve got to do that, Dad!”
So he applied to do a masters of teaching, and went off to uni. I think he was a bit apprehensive because it had been 25 years or so since he was at uni doing his bachelors of science. And university education has changed a lot. Now it’s all online, and it’s very computer based, and I think we had one computer per department at uni. We certainly didn’t have PCs and we certainly didn’t take computers to university and put them on our laps and record all our notes and everything. And I said, “Andy, you’ll do fine, you’ll do fine.” And also, he was going to be one of the oldest students. But he had courage. He thought he could do it. We were behind him. He went off to uni. And he was there for two years getting his masters.
Well, he got to the end of the course, and we got this letter one day and it said, “We’d like to congratulate you. You’re on the dean’s list.” And Andy said, “The dean’s list? What’s the dean’s list?” And we found out that it was the top 10 percent of the students, of the marks—that they had achieved in the top 10 percent. And he thought, “Oh! Well that’s okay.” And then a few days later he got another letter saying, “Congratulations. We’re going to award you the dean’s medal.” And that’s the top two percent.
SUE: And we couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe it at all. And Andy said, “Well look, I’ve got to go and collect this medal on this particular day. Will you come with me?” He said, “We’ll go—I’m sure they’re not going to give it to me. We’re going to get there and they’re going to say ‘I’m very sorry, we didn’t mean Andy Elvis, we meant somebody else. No, I’m sorry.” So we laughed about it all the way there, we got there, and when we got to the desk, there was all his information, his name tag and everything, and it appeared he was getting the dean’s medal. So I sat there very proud wife, while he got his dean’s medal.
But the medal wasn’t the important thing. What we learned from that was, that when you’re passionate about something, when you’re really interested in what you’re learning, and you have a goal you want to achieve, learning isn’t a problem at all. He didn’t know that medal existed. He went back as a mature-aged student. He didn’t even know how to do—oh he was very good with computers. He used them with work, which for educational purposes, for his course, he had to learn lots of skills about forums and chat rooms and reporting and all that. And yeah, he got the dean’s medal.
And my kids, you know, they were just so proud of my husband. It felt like turning the tables. Instead of us being proud of our kids, they were proud of him. And I think he gave them a vision of anything is possible. Follow your dreams, do what you really want to do. You might not have the same job for the rest of your life. You don’t have to do something secure and safe. But maybe some people think teaching is, but it wasn’t secure and safe option for his middle years. It might have been at the beginning. That it’s never too late to learn. And also that when we learn, we don’t have to learn everything when we are children or teenagers. We can learn when we have a need. Any my husband learned so much because he had a need, in his middle years. He wanted to do something. He learned the skills. He was passionate. He went on. And he got the dean’s medal. And we encouraged him.
We had to trust a lot, because our life changed a lot over those two years. But it was a wonderful two years as well, because we had a house full of learners. I had another son who was at uni—I’m not sure if my daughter Imogen was also at uni at that time, but we had unschoolers, registered homeschoolers—we were all learning. And we’d all get up every morning, talk about what we were learning for the day, what our plans were, encourage each other, help each other out. My husband would ask my kids about something to do with the computer, because they’d done online learning. And yes, it brought us really close together, and taught us a lot about family and learning and life. And how you don’t have to make up your mind about your life’s job when you’re a teenager, that you can change, you can learn new things along the way, and you can succeed with whatever you want to do, if you’re interested enough, if you’re passionate about what you want to do.
So I guess those are the lessons we learned from my husband’s experience of going back to uni and becoming a schoolteacher.
PAM: It’s so funny when you start with that: He went to uni to become a schoolteacher. But yes, that’s an amazing story with how that just completely wove into your lives, right? That’s awesome!
SUE: An unschooling story about a school teacher. [laughter]
Yes, it’s a good talking point.
PAM: Oh yeah, no. I love that. And I love how it’s fascinating, because he was, like you said, just doing something, he was making the choice, something that he wanted to learn, he wanted to do. What a beautiful example of just following your passion for something that you’re interested in regardless of your age. And it’s okay to do it at any age. What a beautiful example of life-long learning, for your kids, just having it weave through your family no matter what the age. And then, so the goal wasn’t the marks, wasn’t the medal, or the dean’s list, or anything like that. Those were wonderful surprises at the end, right? But yeah, he didn’t even know they existed, did he?
SUE: No, that’s right. And I think it’s a good story for people who are worried about cramming things into kids as much as possible, thinking that this is their one and only opportunity to learn. Of course it’s not. We learn when we have a need, and anybody can learn.
PAM: Yeah. That’s spectacular.
Now, our last question. I’m very excited to hear.
What has surprised you most about your family’s unschooling adventures?
SUE: Well, I guess that we set out to find the perfect way to educate our kids, and we were surprised to find out how unschooling took over our whole lives.
And, we have learned so much about ourselves. Not just our children, but each of us has learned a lot about ourselves and each other. And I think the thing we’ve learned the most about is unconditional love. How that has drawn our family so close together. That in accepting each other, accepting each other’s talents, each other’s goals, helping, encouraging, trusting each other, not worrying about mistakes, but forgiving each other. That type of thing. That we learned to love each other without condition. That has really brought us very, very strong bonds. We’re a strong family. And I think that is the most surprising thing. I never thought that when we set out on this journey 26 years ago, that the end product would be love. Would be, our family. I thought maybe well-educated children.
I didn’t think that we’d all get involved in our own learning as well. The things that we’ve all been able to achieve, and to see everybody develop as a person, so that the relationship’s there, but also it is so exciting seeing each individual person in the family blossom. To use their talents. To become the people they can be.
That’s sort of a lifetime process, but yeah—at school, growing up, I didn’t feel that I was anyone very special at all. I wasn’t popular. I was told I didn’t have any particular talents. I was clever enough, but nobody gave me the opportunity to discover what I was really interested in. Nothing that made me feel excited. And I feel that everybody in our family is excited about who they are, what they’ve got to share, and not only within the family but we want to go outside the family and see what we can do with our talents. Share them with other people.
And because we’ve got a strong family home base, we can go out there in the world, support and encourage each other, and who knows what else we will do. It’s just an exciting journey I think, and it’s one that’s not going to end, unlike homeschooling ends age 18. This unschooling journey’s just going to keep on going and going. And even though my kids are getting older, and I am no longer going to have children under 18 for very much longer—another four years and my youngest daughter will be 18. But, who knows what’s ahead. We don’t know, do we? The opportunities that come up, we cannot see. We go places that we have never imagined. And that’s what’s exciting, I think.
PAM: Wow, yeah. That was beautiful, Sue. And I love that it’s the excitement. It’s the openness. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s an adventure. We’re just open to what crosses our paths that we find interesting.
And I love how you talked about how they are excited to be themselves. What a great story juxtaposed with your experience growing up. That when we’re in school, in that we’re doing the same things as everybody else, and we have to follow this path, we don’t have that time to discover who we are and what makes us unique and the things we find interesting. And one thing I love seeing over the years with my kids—the different things that they found interesting, but then noticing the thread of what’s uniquely them that flows through all of those interests. There’s just a little something in each one that’s like, that’s why that particular child found that interesting, and that, and that. You can see those connections, can’t you?
SUE: You can. And I think it’s very sad that we can be tempted to make our kids be who we think they are. And then when we let them be themselves, it’s just remarkable. That each and every one of us has so much to offer, if we’re allowed to be the people we are. Yeah, I think it’s exciting, but where will we all go?
And I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not that bad a person after all. That sounds terrible but leaving school, leaving uni, I felt like I was a disappointment for everybody. I mean I got the marks I needed, but I didn’t fulfill people’s expectations. People wanted me to do this, that, and the other, and I didn’t. And now unschooling I feel just like my children. That I have something to offer, and I’m not that bad after all. That I have a place in the world. Do you understand that?
PAM: Me? Absolutely! What a way for us to discover ourselves too, right? It takes away that measure. Because I remember even when I left work to stay home with the kids, that was one of the biggest pieces. Who am I now? Because I was just so used to measuring myself by that conventional yardstick of accomplishments, of that productivity.
But it was just amazing how we too, as we work through those layers, we can discover who we really are, and the things we love to do, the interests that we have, and the way we shine. And parenting being one of those interests that we discover. And ways to connect with our kids. And just appreciating and loving that we can just live with our kids.
Like you said, one of the most surprising things was how this was really, when we started, a question of how we were going to educate our kids. What were we going to replace school with, if they weren’t going to go to school? And that it grew into being how we choose to live our lives, right?
SUE: Yes, yes.
PAM: Well, thank you so, so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Sue. It was so much fun. Thank you.
SUE: It has been a lot of fun for me, Pam. I must say I was a little bit apprehensive. I’ve been stepping outside my comfort zone here. But it was something that I really wanted to do, and listening to your podcast I knew that you would make it easy. You are so warm and friendly, and I thought, “Yeah, I’ll be alright. Pam will make sure that I’m okay.” And I have to say, it’s been absolutely wonderful talking to you, and so glad that I had the courage to do this. So thank you.
PAM: Oh, thank you so much, Sue. I really appreciate it. And I had so. much. fun. I’m glad you did too. And, it’s morning there, isn’t it, as I see it’s getting dark out here in Canada.
SUE: Yes, we have just started our day. We started talking what, at eight o’clock this morning. So yes. We’ve got the whole day ahead of us.
PAM: Oh, yay! Well, have a wonderful day, Sue.
SUE: Thank you so much, Pam. I really appreciate it.